Zen vs the Wandering Mind


We are excited to announce that at the end of next week---barring any complete disasters---we will submit Stress Free to Apple for approval. After it goes through we will need your help to test it out. I will post a link on the main site and here so you can get downloading. You can probably imagine that it has been quite a tense couple of weeks full of long days for the team. We have had our fair share of niggling, frustrating, time-draining unexplainable bugs this week. Next week will probably be even worse!

The wandering mind

With all of this going on it's difficult to keep anxiety in check. When we think repeatedly about all the things that can go wrong and our mind wanders to all the possible horrible futures of utter failure our brain is doing something quite specific. If we stick our head inside an fMRI machine we will see activation in a brain network connecting three specific bits of the brain: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (just behind your forehead), the medial temporal cortex (tucked deep inside the brain at the level of your temples), and the posterior cingulate cortex along with the precuneus (on the inside surface of both hemispheres near the top and a bit to the back). These three areas and a few other bits that connect to them are known as the default network (1).

The default network has been a source of much interest in recent years as changes in its activation have been implicated in disorders such as schizophrenia, ADHD, autism, post traumatic stress disorder (1-3). As I said before, activity in the default network is linked to mind wandering instead of focusing on the here and now. Recent studies show how mind-wandering is linked to low mood and anxiety (4). Studies also show that living in the moment is associated with a greater degree of happiness and calm (5).

Enter the Zen Master

It turns out that the practice of meditation quiets down activity in the default network when we look at people practicing it inside the fMRI (6). Also, long-term regular practitioners seem to have a different pattern of activation on their default networks (6). This, coupled with the evidence that meditation seems to help long-term with depression and anxiety (and other problems), suggests that the effects of meditation on the default network might explain how and why it works.

The take home message

The good thing about working on Stress Free is that as we test it and work out the kinks we can use it to guide our meditation. At times of self-doubt, when we think it is never going to work, we fire up the meditation exercise and the Zen Master gives the Mind Wanderer a good thrashing. That is enough to recharge our batteries and keep at it. When Stress Free ships remember to use it regularly. Practice over time will allow you to control that pesky default network and teach it who's the master!

1. Buckner, R. L.; Andrews-Hanna, J. R.; Schacter, D. L. (2008). "The Brain's Default Network: Anatomy, Function, and Relevance to Disease". Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1124: 1–38

2. Andrews-Hanna JR, Reidler JS, Sepulcre J, Poulin R, Buckner RL (2010) Functional anatomic fractionation of the brain’s default network. Neuron 65:550–562

3. Castellanos FX, et al. (2008) Cingulate-precuneus interactions: a new locus of dysfunction in adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Biol Psychiatry 63:332–337

4. Smallwood J, O'Connor RC, Sudbery MV, Obonsawin M (2007) Mind-wandering and dysphoria.Cog & Emotion  21 (4):816-842

5. Killingsworth MA, Gilbert DT (2010). A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind. Science 330(6006) 932

6. Brewer JA, Worhunsky PD, Gray JR,  Tang Y, Jochen Weberd J, Hedy Kobera H (2011). Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity. PNAS doi: 10.1073/pnas.1112029108